I was a teenage kid who went to church on my own. My parents had called it quits when I was young so there was no family pressure to attend. As I grew up I began to have some suspicions which started creeping into the art I made. Eventually, those suspicions culminated in a small print that alluded to the church’s potential to homogenize people in ways that were not always healthy. While life can be easier when we can share it, it doesn’t improve when anything resembling a real life must be hidden, polished, or so cleaned up that it barely notes mentioning. A building with a cross on it is specifically for imperfect people. It unfortunately almost goes with our saying that the print was swiftly rejected by the church community that I had been part of for years. The print later won a state competition and hung in a corner of a government building somewhere because my teachers liked the piece so much that they signed it up in a competition on my behalf.
Both communities, the art room and the church were communicating to me the things that they valued about me. One valued my silence. To presume that art is exclusively about benign decoration is to misunderstand art. Sometimes the value of something is its capacity to put a crack in a heart of stone or to make your skin crawl when you recognize yourself in a villain.
When you are creative it is difficult to disentangle the stuff that you make from who you are because so much of it is driven by internal stuff. How people engage or choose not to does not define my identity, but sometimes it feels like it does. I might be much healthier if I just let go of this, but one of the downsides of creative work is the blurry line between you and the stuff that you make. I think that part of the value of making is that blurry line. We feel connected to the arts because they are made by people who care deeply about what they are making for reasons they don’t always understand. It seems like most of the useful things that we do or say tend to disappear into other people’s lives and allow them to continue being. There was a stretch of time in my life where the only thing that kept me going was an old iPod, Thursday and Friday nights alone at dance clubs, and calls with my parents.
I was recently commissioned by my church to create a painting. There were no clear directives given about what I was allowed to do, or how I was allowed to interpret the subject. The work was treated respectfully and I was generously compensated. When I wrote a short statement to give the image some context they not only printed the statement beside the piece, they requested that I read it during the service. I wish that every church treated the creative people in their congregation with the same dignity and generosity. The person who sought me out and invited me to participate probably only had some vague notions that they might be addressing something from a long time ago.
It can be impossible to see some harm or good until decades down the road when those events and words bear fruit. Everyone is always functioning with a narrow interpretation of reality. When we think we are addressing one issue in a person rather than a complicated cumulative history we are missing the whole person behind half-formed ideas.
Thank you, Brynn and all of the staff at Anchor Bay Church. Sincerely.
Here is the statement:
Often, an anchor is portrayed as a symbol of resolute strength. We like objects that seem to project strength if only as a stand-in symbol of our own fortitude, so the true function of the object can be obscured by its symbolic associations. An anchor must be strong because people are fragile. Our bodies are easily tossed into a roiling ocean and lost forever. We rely on iron and steel to manage natural elements that we are no match for. The fear and reverence that we have for these forces are part of what drives us to God. We run to God when we come to the end of our capacity to manage circumstances.
I remember driving through Wyoming canyons as a kid and thinking, that if one of those massive rocks slip off that ledge, it will crush everyone in this car. While the idea sounds alarming, the feeling it produces is something else. The feeling it produces is awe. Respect. It is humbling, but also a comfort to feel small.
The beauty and mystery of Jesus are that he reveals the heart of God in frailty. Jesus was resurrected with the evidence of His wounds intact. He left the reporting to the fumbling beauty of our poor penmanship and shifting memories. He left the documentation to the deeply flawed. He descended into our cruelty and was thrown out by the people who were the most well-equipped to recognize him. It is important to note that in the verse it is the builders who reject the stone. The builders. The people who know how to work in stone reject the cornerstone. It is the spiritual professionals who are sent away or given parables of extreme caution about their perceptions of their own moral performance. It seems as though it is difficult to truly see Jesus unless you presume that you need Jesus.
This painting is about an anchor, but it is also about perception. It is about how, even if we can see an object, we see it through a folded, biased, and crumpled lens. We see “through a glass darkly”. We can only ever know reality through our own lens and our perceptions are always imperfect and partial. This difficult truth should breathe life into humility and gentleness it is why we need one another and why we need Jesus.
Levi S Nelson, Forgotten Anchor 22 x 28